While some child predators are caught in the act or confess to their crimes, in many cases the signs of child sexual abuse are so vague that the people who observe them wait far too long to investigate or fail to act at all. They may feel that there’s no proof of the abuse, or that acting on suspicion will get them nowhere. Still, there are some behaviors that are far more common among children who have been sexually abused than those who have not. Anyone who becomes aware of these behaviors should be aware of the likelihood of past or ongoing sexual abuse and act accordingly.
- Children may disclose the abuse.If a child tells you that he is being sexually abused, you should always believe him. It’s true that children may occasionally be coached to say they’re being abused when they’re not, but far too often the abuse is actually occurring and must be stopped. Don’t worry about whether or not you have “proof” of the abuse—that’s for the authorities to sort out. Your first and only responsibility is to report what the child has told you.
- Children may dress in a way that is inappropriate for their age. For instance, a child in second grade who insists on wearing provocative or sexually revealing clothing is not behaving in a way that is expected for her age. This can sometimes be a hallmark of sexual abuse.
- Children may self-stimulate to an excessive degree. Some children who have been sexually abused may masturbate frequently, and may do so in inappropriate situations (such as in the classroom). While masturbation is a normal childhood behavior, most children can be taught when and where it’s okay to do so. When children who are old enough to make this distinction seem to be unaware that touching themselves is not appropriate in certain situations, that can be a red flag for sexual abuse.
- Children may imitate or simulate explicit sexual behavior. In children who are too young to have engaged in or been exposed to sexual acts, mimicking intercourse or oral sex is a warning sign for sexual abuse. Older children may deliberately expose themselves to other kids.
- Children may spend a lot of time in the company of bigger, older children. By itself, this is not a good indicator of child sexual abuse. But any of the above behaviors that suggest child sexual abuse should be taken that much more seriously when demonstrated by a child who is frequently surrounded by bigger, older kids. It’s not unusual for the perpetrators of child sexual abuse to be other children who have been sexually abused themselves. When groups of children are unsupervised, these abused children may use coercion or force to act out sexual behavior with younger, smaller children.